Acoustic Research UA1 portable DAC/headphone amp review

Acoustic Research UA1 DAC review frontAfter my brief introduction to the Acoustic Research UA1 DAC/headphone amp at The Bristol Show I just knew that I had to find a way to live with one for at least a few days. My wish was duly granted so that I could share my views about the new device. Has Acoustic Research managed to reclaim its glory years as a premium audio brand? Let’s find out.

Acoustic Research chose the Sound and Vision Show 2015 to debut its new Digital and High-End Division, which it is consciously keeping separate from its… more affordable products.

The UA1 DAC (Digital Analogue Converter) has been pitched at the top end of the market and promises to upgrade the sound from any computer to deliver genuine high-definition audio right in to your lugholes.

Acoustic Research UA1 DAC design

When I first saw the UA1 DAC I thought it looked like a great bit of kit and when the review device landed on my desk the packaging only added to the experience of holding a premium piece of Hi-Fi equipment.

The unit is cased in an aerospace grade aluminium shell which measures 82 x 135 x 24mm and is bookended by gloss black panels front and rear.

Acoustic Research UA1 DAC review rearIt is all very understated and certainly gives the impression of a no-nonsense piece of tech.

You get the AR logo engraved on the top of the device with the front fascia housing a headphone jack, a knurled volume dial which uses analogue control, and a multicolour LED indicator that shows you the output sample rate.

Nip around the back of the UA1 DAC and you’ll find a pair of RCA outputs should you want to send audio to some powered speakers or an amp, an asynchronous USB 2.0 port and optical (TOSLINK) output.

The sides of the UA1 feature neat vent cut-outs that have a fine mesh to prevent dust and things falling in. It does get warm to the touch after a while.

Personally I love the angled Stealth look. If Batman was to use a portable DAC, I reckon it would be one of these, albeit in a custom black finish no doubt.

Acoustic Research UA1 DAC installation and software

Acoustic Research bundle in the Jriver Media Center 19 for free along with an installation CD. The latter fact instantly flagged up that the UA1 isn’t going to be a plug n play device.

The Jriver Media Center comes complete with an installation code so, should you want to use it, and I have heard great things about it, it is yours for free and thus saves you £50.

AR UA1 DAC packagingThankfully installation of the drivers is all very straight forward and pretty much self-explanatory. If your machine doesn’t have an optical drive, I know most now rely on SSD and the like, then you can install the drivers by downloading them from Acoustic Research’s website.

The UA1 provides installation for both Windows and Mac OS X.

Remember to select the new playback device in TIDAL‘s settings as that’s something I forgot to do in my eagerness to get ears-on with the UA1 😉

Acoustic Research UA1 DAC playback and portability

What was used to review the AR UA1 DAC?

As the UA1 is a USB powered and connected device designed to be portable, this is how I have tested it. I have moved it from desk-to-desk, it has been used at home, in the garden and at work. It has been plugged in to my main PC at home and, for the most part, been powered by my Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro.

AR UA1 DAC and Oppo PM1Headphones have been my Oppo PM-1 open planar-magnetic headset and the closed back NAD VISO HP50 cans when in the office. I mostly played tracks from TIDAL, again so that everything was on a level playing field but I also tested MP3 at varying sample rates but, as you would think, the lower the rates the more toe-curlingly obvious the lossy quality of them were through the equipment being used.

Regarding portability, the size is right to have it in your bag but I very much doubt if most people will have a pocket to slip the UA1 inside.

What I would suggest to the lovely people at AR is perhaps to include a travel case/pouch as, when taking the DAC to work, I had to slip it inside a well padded glove. Just a thought.

I tested the UA1 with the bundled USB cable just as this will be the one most people will use straight out of the box, I would imagine.

Acoustic Research UA1 DAC review

Once everything was up and running, and TIDAL was pointing at the UA1 as the output device, I settled in with my ears nestled beneath my PM-1s.

The first thing I noticed was how nice and accurate the volume dial is. There is a satisfying click as you gradually notch it around. There is a nice gradation to the increase and decrease, depending on which way you turn it, of volume with no huge leaps.

Playing piano and vocal tracks, such as Diana Krall’s version of ‘Desperado’ or Robert Glasper’s ‘Ah Yeah’ the midrange is clean, clear and open. In the low mids there is a touch of warmth as you head more in to the bass end of things but this is a pleasant and positive note.

AR UA1 DAC and NAD VISOSelecting U2’s ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, however, did leave me looking for something too. Eloise by The Damned seemed to point this out even more, particularly through the PM-1s. I felt that solo male vocals seem to be lacking a little bit of engagement when compared to the Musical Fidelity V90 DAC which I generally use with my home PC. Once surrounded by instruments they seem fine though.

Strings, on the other hand, allows the UA1 DAC’s skills to shine through with how it deals with the upper registers. The accuracy of how the UA1 handles treble may seem cold or perhaps harsh to some who are more used to having a little bit of added colour to their listening experience and the HP50s did remove some of that, but I loved the pin-sharp focus through the Oppo cans and the Acoustic Research DAC. This had me springing for some Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli as well as a slab of First Aid Kit’s ‘Stay Gold’ album.

Bass is equally well handled. You can definitely tell it is there but not in an overbearing way. This is where the richness of the overall sound comes from with the UA1. Not only does the bass add warmth it also goes some way to balance the coldness of the treble. The bass is also nice and taut when playing tracks featuring plenty of drums – Adam and The Ants, Bow Wow Wow, Tool, Rush and Iron Maiden were amongst my drum list. The portable DAC presented detail and punch aplenty and I actually preferred the UA1 to the V90 DAC for these tracks through headphones.

Acoustic Research UA1 overall sound

It’s all well-and-good breaking down the sonic characteristics of a device but what really matters is how things sound when all the band hits your ears and I can say that the UA1 DAC is impressive.

The overall soundstage manages to cover everything I’d expect a DAC in this price range to and, perhaps, deliver its own character along with it too.

The UA1 is accurate and precise but not in a way that will wear the listener down. I have been plugged in to the UA1 for hours on end and, apart from getting warm ears, I did not feel that fatigue you get when being assaulted by purely cold and clinical reproduction.

There is certainly plenty of depth as well as room and, thanks to the slight bloom in the bass range, there is a warmth whilst still maintaining the sharpness in the upper ranges.

Acoustic Research UA1 DAC review conclusion

The short version of this conclusion would simply to say that this is a great DAC, especially given that it is a portable one powered by USB.

There is certainly a lot to like about it, and I especially like the design and the sound it produces.

There were no occasions where I needed more from the amp in terms of volume but, if you were looking at using this as a stand-alone DAC/amp in your fixed system there may be other avenues to explore which may provide better results.

From my recollection of the Meridian Director and Explorer, as impressive as they are in their own ways, I would opt for and heartily recommend taking the Acoustic Research UA1 DAC for a test drive before putting your money down.

On the matter of money, the Acoustic Research UA1 DAC retails at £399.99.

Acoustic Research features at a glance
  • Asynchronous USB Audio 2.0 interface M-Class audio engine with Burr-brown PCM1794A DAC
    (Based on the Acoustic Research M1 music player)
  • Gold plated RCA output connectors
  • Windows/Mac OS X music player included for FLAC, DSD 64/128, and DXD playback
  • Optical output
  • ¼ inch headphone output
  • Dual Burr-Brown OPA2134 current/voltage converter
  • High slew rate TPA6120A2 Headphone amplifier
  • POWER (THD < 0.01%) 32 ohms 400mW + 400 mW 300 ohms 43mW + 43mW